Despite the fact that the Kings are still in contention for a playoff spot in (near) mid-January for the first time in what feels like forever, this season has been more disappointing than anything else. I'll spare you the reasons why it's been disappointing. If you've been watching the team, you already know, and I don't want to let every Kings thought get drowned out by on-court dysfunction, injuries, systematic failures, blown leads, turnovers, etc. Instead, I'm going to try and focus on what can help, on what George Karl has been begging for, and what's available in-house.
You can improve a team in many ways. The easiest, of course, is to fix the problems with solutions you already have access to. Trades are great, but they are tricky, and how any trade actually fits into a locker room and system can't be known until it happens, and once it does, there is no going back. Despite, again, all of the Kings' issues this season, oddly enough, I don't think chemistry has been one of them. I should specify that I'm talking about chemistry between the players. Chemistry between players and coaching staff is a little harder to read, but as far as player-to-player interactions are concerned, I don't think that has been a problem. The biggest perceived chemistry-related issue heading into the season was how Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins were going to get along, and on that front, things couldn't have developed better. In some ways, it has created a tricky situation for the Kings' front office, because Cousins has made his love for Rondo so public, so outspoken, that his happiness in Sacramento could be tied to the Kings retaining Rondo this offseason. On paper, I'm in for more Rajon Rondo, but I want to see what that contract looks like before I dive in head first.
That was a tangent. My point is, I don't know if trading a valuable piece of this core is the answer right now, because I think this locker room is close, and as we've been saying all year, the talent is here. I'm not opposed to a trade, of course, but before the Kings explore that route, I'd like to see them do something extremely simple, extremely easy, and long over due.
Play Willie Cauley-Stein. Like, really play him. Make him an essential part of the rotation instead of a 'if he's great, he gets 20 minutes, if he's not, he gets less than 10' guy. He needs to be in there every night, consistently, particularly while defensive breakdowns continue to sink this team.
I know he just came back from two separate finger related injuries, which, in some way, makes what he's done in his three games back even more impressive. His right hand has two bandaged fingers, the open dislocation isn't fully healed, and he has stitches on his middle finger. All of that sounds completely unpleasant to play basketball with. He done it, and done it well.
George Karl has mentioned a sort of personally imposed minutes restriction because he's worried about Cauley-Stein's conditioning since he had been away from the court for so long. You can work on your conditioning with a broken finger, I know, I know, 'basketball shape is different' but this is something I can't help but bring up. Karl has talked about Cauley-Stein's conditioning since training camp. I've said this before, but I feel the need to say it again, Karl obviously has a better perspective on Cauley-Stein's condition than I do. The only evidence I have of the contrary is what I've seen from Willie on the court, and he looks and moves like he is in no worse condition than anyone else out there. He's often beating every other King up and down the court, but hey, I'm not the coach, we only see what we are allowed to see.
If you told me that once Cauley-Stein gets into whatever kind of shape Karl wants him in, he'd be playing consistently, I'd be fine with that. I want those big time minutes for Willie now, if Karl wants to wait another couple of weeks, whatever, but I wasn't pleased with Cauley-Stein's minutes before he got hurt, so I don't think waiting for him to 'get into shape' will satisfy me, either.
One of the biggest disconnects I have with Karl is that he has been harping on the Kings' poor, inconsistent, defense after almost every game, and yet the most dynamic defender on this roster can't get more than 20 minutes on the very high end, pre or post injury. Granted, Karl is mostly referencing defense on the perimeter, but Cauley-Stein can make a bigger impact on the Kings' perimeter defense than any of their other bigs. His transition defense alone can discourage so many of those broken play, transition three's the Kings give up when they don't hustle back.
Numbers dump incoming -
The Kings' best lineup that has received any significant amount of playing time is still that old starting unit of Rajon Rondo, Ben McLemore, Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, and Willie Cauley-Stein (+33 per 100 possessions).
Cauley-Stein has the 2nd highest (lowest) defensive rating of any King (105), right behind DeMarcus Cousins (102). It's also worth noting that the top five Kings in defensive rating are all in the front court. Eric Moreland, DeMarcus Cousins, Willie Cauley-Stein, Quincy Acy, and Kosta Koufos make up that top five before you can find a guard (and it's Rajon Rondo). You know, just in case the defensive weakness of this roster wasn't crystal clear.
Cauley-Stein still has the highest net rating of any rotation player (+3.5), second highest rebound percentage (11.9), he's shooting a ridiculous 62% from the field because he never forces offense. The Kings are 4.7 points better when Cauley-Stein is on the court, no matter which lineup he's in. This is also a team high.
One of my other favorites is turnover rate, which sort of demonstrates something Cauley-Stein does that is really hard to quantify. He creates turnovers by making simple things like inbound passes, or post entries difficult just by virtue of knowing where to be and when to be there. It also helps that his arms are Dhalsim-esque. Anyhow, teams turn the ball over at a rate of 17.7 per 100 possessions when Cauley-Stein is on the floor. That is, you guessed it, a team high.
The sample size for all this stuff is what it is. If the numbers didn't agree with what my eyes saw, I wouldn't use them, to be completely honest, but that wouldn't change my argument. The team looks better when he is on the court. The team defends better when he is on the court. I want him on the court more than he was before his injuries, and I want him on the court more now that he's back from said injuries. It doesn't need to be any more complicated than that.